I grew up in Chicago and still go there often. But since I'm visiting my family, I rarely stay in hotels.
Friends post on Facebook about their weekends at the historic Burnham or the boutique James, the bargain Days Inn or the glitzy Wit; it all sounds very "downtown" and exotic compared with my mom's suburban townhouse.
Recently, overcome with envy -- and "on assignment" -- I booked rooms at three Chicago hotels, all opened within the past nine months. Each of these newcomers has its own style, price point and charm.
It was a hectic trip, what with changing hotels each day, but it turned out to be a great way to experience three distinct parts of the city -- Lincoln Park, with few hotels; the east Loop, which is thick with 'em, and the walkable River North district.
Where: 1816 N. Clark, at the bottom of the "V" where Clark and Lincoln converge, across the street from Lincoln Park and its famous zoo.
Opened: spring 2012.
Vibe: Retro, with a healthy splash of kitsch. Garage-sale paintings adorn a lobby stairwell, and Chicago-specific photos and art decorate the rooms.
Details: The lobby, which adjoins Elaine's coffee shop and Perennial Virant, chef Paul Virant's farm-to-table restaurant, makes an appealing hangout.
My 10th-floor room was small but nicely appointed, with zillion-thread-count white sheets, 27 pillows, flat-screen TV, Wi-Fi and comfy rolling office chair. Its single window overlooked Lincoln Park and the lake.
A gorgeous Sunday afternoon lured me outside, where the hotel has free bikes for customer use. I took one and pedaled through Lincoln Park, past the famous zoo that I visited as a child and out to the blue-green lakefront that makes Chicago one of the country's great summertime cities.
Turning north, I headed up to Belmont, where a big harbor was busy with pleasure boats. A few blocks to the west and I was in Lakeview, where I browsed at Unabridged Bookstore and drank coffee in the window of Intelligentsia, the best small-chain coffee place in town.
Nightlife seekers can head a few blocks south to Old Town, home of the Second City comedy club and chock-a-block with eateries.
Find a hearty breakfast at Nookie's on N. Wells, then stroll in the adjacent Old Town Triangle district, an old German enclave of quiet streets clustered around massive St. Michael's Church. With its narrow streets, small houses and apartments, shade-dappled sidewalks, birdsong and school playgrounds, it's entirely charming, the kind of place you would want to live in if you moved to Chicago.
Pocketbook issues: Total bill for one night in my single-king-bed room was $406, with no room service or minibar raiding. I've seen online offers at about half that rate, which is more in line with what it's worth. At $406, it's drastically overpriced, especially for a non-Loop location.
Phone and Web: 1-312-254-4700; www.hotellincolnchicago.com.
RADISSON BLU AQUA HOTEL
Where: 221 N. Columbus Dr., just east of the Loop and south of the river in the massive Lakeshore East development above the old Illinois Central rail yards.
Opened: November 2011.
Vibe: Spare and clean, with sizable splashes of elegance and contemporary design.
Details: Bribe someone to get yourself booked here for an expenses-paid convention. Or simply splurge for a couple of nights with your sweetie. It is the first Blu in North America, by Minneapolis-based Carlson hotel company; the second is set to open at the Mall of America next March.
The hotel occupies the first 18 floors of an 82-floor apartment tower by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, one of the more beautiful tall buildings in a city with an outsized share of the world's tall buildings. You will run down your camera's battery shooting the wavy, shape-shifting balconies of the exterior from every angle and in every light.
A sleek blue-and-white check-in area at street level gives way to a giant bronze-and-gold fireplace lobby that doesn't seem to fit with the hotel's name, but which makes a lot of sense in a city with long, blustery winters.
My corner room had floor-to-ceiling windows and a walkout balcony with views of both the city and Navy Pier. Inside, the bare wood floors, blond built-in cabinets and giant, glassy, white bathroom made me think I was in a luxe condo in Copenhagen. You'll need to fight the temptation to stay in your handsome room.
Hit the second and third floors for a fitness complex that includes indoor and outdoor swimming, a half-basketball court, sauna and steam rooms, locker rooms, cardio rooms and weights. A massive outdoor seating and walking area includes barbecue grills and windproof love nests. I did my morning run on the 1/5-mile cushioned outdoor track, with unmatched views of tall buildings and sun-struck Lake Michigan.
The Blu is in a bit of a no-man's-land when it comes to finding, say, a coffee shop or a diner, but it's a block from the biggest tourist attraction to hit Chicago since Navy Pier: Millennium Park. I joined thousands on the grass there for an outdoor concert by Jonathan Richman beneath the popcorned shapes of the stainless-steel Frank Gehry bandshell.
Also an easy walk from the Blu is the dock for the Chicago Architectural Foundation's river cruise ($35-$38). In 90 minutes you see 100 years of the City of the Big Shoulders, from the not-terrible new Trump Tower to the massive Merchandise Mart and the former Montgomery Ward warehouse, with its 2.1 million square feet of space. Expertly narrated by foundation docents, this is a must-do for anyone wishing to learn more about architecture in the city famed for "building, breaking, rebuilding." The foundation's walking tour of famous Loop buildings also is highly recommended.
Pocketbook issues: Total bill for one night in a corner room with walkout balcony was $458, which included a lavish, so-worth-it, room-service breakfast priced at $26. For Chicago, this is an expensive option, but it's a splurge you won't regret.
Phone and Web: 1-312-565-5258; www.radissonblu.com/aquahotel-chicago.
Where: 15 E. Ohio St., in River North, two blocks from the Magnificent Mile shopping district on Michigan Avenue.
Opened: Spring 2012.
Vibe: Funky, arty, with lava lamps in the lobby and logo bathrobes fit for the boxing ring.
Details: This old-building conversion was the least expensive of my three hotels, and it showed in things like an AmericInn-style breakfast and a "workout center" that was a cage in the basement with a vending machine nearby. My room, though small, had a comfy bed and was nicely decked out in the now-common "Ace-like" manner: masculine, industrial fixtures mashed up with retro lamps, midcentury office chair, Wi-Fi, flat-screen TV and non-corporate artwork.
Location-wise, however, the Acme puts you in a very desirable and walkable area. A 12-minute stroll brought me to the Goodman Theater, where I joined a sold-out crowd for five hours of Eugene O'Neill ("The Iceman Cometh"), with Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane. Three blocks to the east and you are smack in the middle of the luxe shops along the Magnificent Mile. Across the street, the 1894 Tree Studios, for decades home to Chicago artists, house an attractive row of small shops and a great lunch place called Grahamwich (eat in the courtyard in back).
Also on the block is the Medinah Temple, converted into a Bloomingdale's home store. It's just a few blocks west of the Merchandise Mart. Extending north from there on Franklin Street for about six blocks is a concentration of design studios, art galleries, coffee shops and such upscale home-decor outlets as Artemide, Luminare, Roche Bobois and Poliform.
Also a short walk from the Acme is one of the great private houses of Gilded Age Chicago, the Driehaus mansion on Erie Street, at Wabash. The 25,000-square-foot, three-story "Marble Palace" had various owners since banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson, who built it, moved out. In this century, the house was established as a museum by hedge-fund director, collector and philanthropist Richard Driehaus, who poured a reported $20 million into the lavish interiors. You may tour it on your own or with a guide. (Driehaus has offices kitty-corner from this building, in a gorgeous Richardsonian romanesque structure that is, alas, not open for tours.)
Pocketbook issues: Total bill for one night in a room with a king bed was $221, which included no extras.
Phone and Web: 1-312-894-0800; www.acmehotelcompany.com.
Claude Peck • 612-673-7977